Examining Constructions of Otherness: More Reflections on ACTC’s 17th Annual Conference

Still reeling from the intense four-day conference of Associated Core Texts and Courses 17th Annual gathering at New Haven, Connecticut, held on April 14-17, one of the panels that stands out in my mind, and which I immediately want to integrate into my own curriculum was “Writing, Drawing, Producing: Students Response to Core Texts.”

Arundhati Sanyal and Nancy Enright from Seton Hall University presented their best teaching practices in their “Re-Telling Personal Narrative: The Digital Short in a University Core Class.” In their classes, they encourage students to consider their own transformative experiences and personal journeys influenced by the core texts they read. Their assignments allow students to explore and explain how a core text “speaks” to them. Students will gather a collage of family photos and images and set these images in synch with a song that illustrates their inspired experience with a particular text. They work on their project for a half hour in each class session. A lot of the students’ projects focus on decision-making and crossroads. Sanyal and Enright report that there’s a new dynamism in class when students get to work on their laptops. They also storyboard the narrative before creating the whole piece, which forces students to understand pace and determine where do they tighten the flow or when can they expand.

From St. Bonaventure University, Professor Anne Foerst covers the Eight Step Bonaventure Intellectual Education, and focuses on step 3, which covers “Who am I as an individual?” Professor Foerst has freshman students write a self portrait that both self-praises and self-critiques. The students reflect over their intellectual journey over the course of their first semester in college and they model their reflections off of Montaigne’s essays. She uses this assignment as a mid-term project; five pages about myself, which is about becoming your own friend. Students become less self-indulgent and more analytical. Foerst uses a quote to direct and inspire students, “I am my own public. My book has made me as much as I have made my own book.”

At the beginning of the semester, she has freshman write down three adjectives to describe themselves. Foerst doesn’t read the adjectives but puts them away until six weeks later when she has them perform the same exercise, but, this time, she breaks out the past adjectives and has them compare their self-perception. Students get to see how they have fundamentally changed over the short course of six weeks. This assignment helps give them a foundation to write their self reflection. In their reflective essay, students use quotes from texts they’ve read in Foerst’s class, and the essay focuses on personal transformation, exploring such inquiries as the following.

(I’ve added some questions and prompts of my own to try and tailor this assignment to some of my courses)

(My addition) Consider the core values or ideas of two authors you’ve read in this seminar. Summarize and evaluate these values or ideas by exploring how they might have influenced or inspired you by answering the following questions in reflection of these new values and ideas you’ve learned:

  • Where are you now after reading your chosen authors?
  • How has your sense of self changed?
  • How has your outlook on the world changed?
  • How have your opinions about a specific topic or idea changed?
  • Who am I in society?
  • How have I transformed intellectually?
  • How do I see others differently? Specify what you mean by “others” whether its classmates, roommates, professors, teammates, etc.
  • Analyze how your relationships to others (i.e. classmates, professors, siblings, parents, lovers, co-workers and cousins) have changed since you’ve read these texts.
  • How have your core values changed, if at all, after reading your chosen texts?

Foerst explains how students come to evaluate their own construction of “otherness” and how artificial their constructions can be. She asks her class often if they think race is real, and they have a hard time wrestling with this but slowly come to learn that they’re not isolated individuals. “If they embrace their own ambiguity, they can learn to embrace the ambiguity in others,” she urges, and then warns us, “There can be a dark side to the adjectives used” since students come to see their own faults. With this exercise they learn ambiguity and empathy. They can see themselves as a character. These assignments help make the core texts less scary and less daunting. As professors, we’re constantly trying to find ways to help students engage with the texts in the most immediate and urgent ways, and these best practices are wonderful opportunities for both students and faculty to connect with the authors and with one another.

Write-up on ACTC’s 17th Annual Conference sponsored by Yale in New Haven, CT

From April 14 through April 17, 2011, I had the honor and pleasure of presenting at the 17th Annual Conference for the Association for Core Texts and Courses, sponsored by Yale University, and co-sponsored by Augustana College, Boston College, and College of the Holy Cross, hosted at The Omni Hotel in New Haven, Connecticut. This year’s theme was “The Quest for Excellence: Liberal Arts and Core Texts.”

One of the plenary speakers argued for the spirituality of 19th century French poetry focusing on a particular piece by Mallarme, and two scientists, a quantum physicist and a chemist, responded with genuine enthusiasm about the connections they’d made to the poem presented and how the poem demonstrated the fragmentation in quantum physics and solvation of chemistry. The engagement from the scientists was wonderfully inspiring, and I truly hope to see more reaching out across the disciplines.

Thankfully the last speaker for the plenary sessions called for more cross-disciplinary collaboration and criticized the institutions for making such collaborations impossible. ACTC focuses more on critical and scholarly work though some of the panels centered on best practices and pedagogy. The panel “Core Images, Part II: Learning, Examples, Practice” brought together art historians and art professors who urged the use of art as a vital source for discussion and inquiry. Tatiana Klacsman from Augusta State University and her presentation “The Iliad in Teaching Art History within a Humanities Framework” covered how culture and values can be analyzed and evaluated through Greek artifacts. Mona Holmlund from University of Saskatchewan discussed approaches to indigenous art, especially in contrast to the Western canon with her presentation “The Challenges of Integrating Indigenous Knowledge with the Western Canon.”

Another literature scholar posed the worry of art replacing the written word, and an attendee followed up by asking how much time should faculty dedicate to art versus text. I had to counter that time is a measure of value, and everything discussed on that panel came down to values whether we’re comparing Indigenous art to Western or text versus image. As Socrates lamented the rise of the written word claiming that text would corrupt the rich oral culture of his time, everything comes down to values, which is determined by culture. We need to keep this in mind anytime we weigh one thing against another. As scholars we should constantly be checking our values and be wary of how our values factor into our curriculum, especially considering how those values may be servicing our goals for diverse student populations.

My own paper certainly evolved out of this consideration of values, which I presented for the panel “Contemplating Critique: How Far Back in Time is It Used?” Here’s an excerpt:

Engaging First-generation Students with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality

Through his Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau draws in First-generation students through affective means, modeling an essential method of critique and analysis that demonstrates an individual’s agency of power based on reason, observation, and imagination. Rousseau provides a critical point of connection for students who may not be traditionally accustomed to the culture and privilege of higher education, and, through his narrative and argument, students can discover a means for engagement within their communities.

Nicole, we’ll call her, was a student who had yet to find her footing, academically. By simplest definition, she is a first-generation student. Neither of her parents had earned their undergraduate degree, and the college experience was all together uncharted waters for her and her family. She floated through Greek Thought and listlessly wandered through the likes of Dante, Augustine, and Chaucer in Roman/Christian, consistently feeling estranged by authors who looked and sounded nothing like her, describing cultures and concepts that seemed completely foreign, and irrelevant to her immediate experience.

By the time she came to my class as a sophomore, she had found her niche on campus and was part of a strong social network, but, academically, she was still unanchored and her displacement seriously affected her GPA. Still, Nicole was hungry for intellectual nourishment, knowing she lacked purpose in her studies, which inhibited her from realizing her full potential. By mid-semester, she was barely treading the choppy waters of Cervantes, Hobbes, and Locke, until, suddenly, to both her surprise and my own, Nicole reached terra firma with Jean Jacques Rousseau.

More coverage and reflection post-conference is forth coming.